Can 3D-Printed Corals Help Us Prevent Flooding?

Coral reefs around the world are dying; that much is clear from the headlines we see in the news that grow increasingly distressed with each passing year. This is an ecological catastrophe, but are we also losing another key benefit of reefs? Coral reefs provide a form of natural protection against wave-driven flooding on tropical coastlines. This is partly because the physical form of the reef (often a big rocky shelf) serves as a sort of natural breakwater, but is also due to the frictional effects of the corals themselves.

Many species of coral have complex shapes that disrupt the flow of water across reefs, generating turbulence and dissipating energy. This has the effect of reducing the height of waves as they travel across the reef towards the shore. However, these effects are incredibly complex and poorly understood, so we usually just simplify them in our predictive models by considering a reef to be more “hydraulically rough” than a sandy beach, for example. But we need to do better: these models are used to forecast flooding and estimate the impact of future climate change on vulnerable coasts.

How can we improve this? In coastal engineering, we often conduct experiments in the laboratory to test our theories and understand the chaos of natural systems in more controlled settings. What if we could make a scale model of a coral reef and measure exactly how waves are dissipated?

I am extremely proud to announce the graduation of Paul van Wiechen, one of the Master’s students whom I have had the pleasure of supervising. Yesterday, he defended his thesis, “Wave dissipation on a complex coral reef: An experimental study“, where he built a tiny coral reef in the TU Delft wave flume (a 30-m long bathtub with a wave-making paddle at one end) using hundreds of 3D-printed coral models.

Paul’s thesis, “Wave dissipation on a complex coral reef: An experimental study“.

It was one of the coolest projects I have ever seen, and his research provides us with valuable measurements that give us a deeper understanding of the vital role that corals play in protecting our coasts.

He also did all of this in the middle of a global pandemic, and somehow managed to stay completely on schedule. We are very lucky, because Paul will be joining the Coastal Engineering department here at TU Delft to start a PhD on dune erosion this fall. We are all glad to have him on the team and eager to see what his research unveils next!